What the New York Times Gets Wrong about Obesity

I hope you’re not valuing your dignity as a human person — or worse! feeling good about your body! — while you read yet another stilted and shame-y diatribe about the moral perils of snack food. If you are, you may catch a serious flaw in much of the New York Times’ recent obesity coverage: we continue blaming and moralizing fat people for the problems of the American food system.

In her February 26 installment, entitled “More Fitness, Less Fatness,” (and published, I kid you not, under the category “Obesity: The Big Picture”), health columnist Jane E. Brody blames the fat acceptance movement for obesity, arguing (incorrectly) that fat people’s self-love is causing a public health crisis. In her November 13, 2017 column, Brody effectively blames childhood obesity on the parents of America who “ply [their children] with snacks all day long.” The piece begins with this gem of an opening (which yes, I mad libbed in my own):

I hope you’re not chomping on a bagel or, worse, a doughnut while you read about what is probably the most serious public health irony of the last half century in this country: As one major killer — smoking — declined, another rose precipitously to take its place: obesity.

Besides being moralizing and downright smug, this opening points to a serious oversight which haunts most writing on obesity: blaming fat people for the American food system. In the world many health and nutrition writers conjure, snack foods fall from the clouds onto our grocery market shelves, where people then make bad, irresponsible individual choices (because they are by implication bad, irresponsible people) and eat these foods. In this explanatory universe, being fat is bad, and Americans are fat because they are bad.

There are several things wrong here. To begin with, there is nothing wrong with being fat. As Lindy West argues, fat people are just fine the way they are, and it is our society which has stigmatized them by making them into scapegoats of collective feelings of guilt and shame. This moralizing, individualizing language is a smokescreen to addressing an actual issue our society suffers from: A food system that does not nourish. By focusing on fatness, rather than the food system, health and nutrition writers scapegoat fat people and reduce a collective, societal, economic, and political problem into a narrow, individual, moral problem.

So let’s stop stigmatizing fatness and focus on what’s really wrong here — the intersection of capitalism, racism, gender oppression, and food.

Americans’ average weight has increased dramatically in the past three decades because our food system, backed by the U.S. government, has made out like bandits from pushing food that does not nourish us, and has profited especially from doing so in poor, black and brown communities and across the developing world. The stigma of this system comes down hardest on the backs of women, who are not only disproportionately responsible for food preparation, but who are also disproportionately scrutinized about weight. If there is a moral failing here, it is of a food system in which the wealthy few profit from reducing normal people’s access to nourishment, and then selling them weight loss products to keep them in a cycle. This is a systemic failure. It is not fat people’s fault or responsibility.

The funny thing here is that The New York Times is aware that there is such a thing as a food system, that it is deeply political, and that mass-produced, high-calorie, low-nutrient food products make a hell of a lot of money for very powerful corporate entities. The Times’ news coverage of the issue explicitly links obesity with the spread of global capitalism — for example, in their coverage of obesity in Kenya, which attributes increasing obesity to the effects of imported, corporate and ready-made food products and the decimation of newly urbanized people’s traditional forms of sustenance. They’ve covered the intentional efforts of the Trump government at NAFTA to advocate for the interests of the wealthy corporates against the people’s right to information about the food we eat. They’ve pointed out that campaigns to encourage (or guilt or shame) people into healthy eating have been hardly effective in the face of the current food system.

That’s why it’s even more dismaying to read New York Times Opinion writers recycling very tired stereotypes about fat people “chomping” on donuts rather than engaging with the system that makes processed foods most accessible for many especially impoverished people in the first place. Pretending that food is a personal, individual problem, a struggle between virtue and vice, puts more money in everyone’s pockets — food companies, diet companies, and commentators who write about this stuff. By isolating people in individual pockets of body-related guilt and shame, we allow the system to continue to function as usual.

We know that sexism is not the fault of individual women, and that poverty is not the result of a moral failure or poor work ethic. Similarly, let’s ditch stigmatizing fatness, forget bullying our bodies into an imagined ideal, and turn our attention to the real issue: the right of every person to have access to affordable, nourishing food.

Cover Photo Credit: The US National Archives

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